Robin Kahn interviewed for Evergreen Review by Joy Garnett
Art by Robin Kahn
Joy Garnett: Your work has spanned painting, collage, music, social or fluxus-type performance — so much! I’m leaving stuff out. I want to know more about your very beginnings, before you knew what you wanted to do. Like what the hell happened when you first went to Barnard? You told me you stumbled onto an untapped library of source material that was, from what you’ve described, formational to your budding feminism and your trajectory as an artist. Not to mention your subversive bent, your righteousness, and your taste for the downright perverse.
Robin Kahn: From an artistic point of view, part of my “very beginnings” started with two experiences I had when attending an elementary school in NYC that was taught mostly in French. The first relates to the school’s emphasis on following a traditional French educational methodology that emphasized memorization and dictée, (reciting it back in class). We memorized poems, essays, and math problems all in the same formulaic way. When we became old enough to write, we would copy sentences off the board and reproduce them in our books or on the board in front of class. This engendered self-awareness in me about how handwriting is a conscious form of linear fluid movement that produces a reaction, a meaning.
The second relates to another formation of meaning: drawing. There was this one teacher, Mme. Juery, who was a particularly good artist. She would spend time drawing figures on the board with different colored pieces of chalk. She could construct an image in such a way that we wouldn’t know the subject until the last few lines. And voilà, two lines would come together to portray a student with backpack and lunch box. I remember feeling awestruck as these abstract marks coalesced into a concrete image, and I vowed I would learn her secrets and try to imitate them. As such, copying became revelatory. It is how I mediate the world and the way I construct my art.
Fast-forward ten years to when I was becoming more aware and interested in the women’s movement. I had transferred to Barnard after my sophomore year in the Italian Language school at Georgetown University. After a semester studying in Siena I realized that I wanted to switch my major to Art History. At Barnard I could take classes there or at Columbia, which made it an incredibly rich resource of libraries for research. One particularly enlightening day I came upon a slew of pre-feminist books geared toward women. It was an antiquated treasure trove of “How To” manuals on etiquette, fashion, beauty, family and homemaking, etc. This source material with its antiquated voice of authority was ripe for making art. It was the catalyst for what became an avenue in my art for using humor and the absurd to subvert the dominantly white male perspective, challenging us to consider the structures of support that sustain its authority.
JG: I want to know more about your research methods. This is a question I ask every artist because I’m obsessed with the transformation of source material into artworks. Do changes in form, structure and scale in your work connect to changes in the material you choose to work with? What connects all the different threads of your work? Is there underlying glue that binds them together as yours?
RK: All of my work focuses on the way in which the identity, representation and role of women participates within the construction of written and oral art history and popular culture. My images and ideas are sourced from authoritative texts that include dictionaries on health and fashion, encyclopedias on domestic responsibility, instructional manuals on travel and leisure, primers on different educational subjects, girlie magazines, and Victorian photo books for men. The latter depict exotic naked women masking as anthropological curiosities from the colonies and “Dark Continent.” From this pool, I develop a vocabulary of recurring images such as men’s balding patterns, women’s body parts, and I.U.D.s. I then recombine these culturally encoded images of perceived strength and weakness into new compositions that explore the unattainable fantasies of perfection that prop up our cultural ideals—and the problems that we encounter in trying to achieve them.
JG: “Robin Kahn sings, WFMU”! What the hell is that? Kenny Goldsmith put you on his Top Ten Musicians list. Jesus H. Christ! Please tell us the whole story.
RK: Here goes the story of My Passion Play! In the early 1990s I was invited by the artist Cary Leibowitz to make a piece for his carnival-themed exhibition at Stux Gallery in NYC. I chose to make the ultimate House of Horrors: a plywood construction consisting of one long dark corridor with the entrance at one end and exit at the other. Visitors navigated through the darkness by feeling the walls along the way. The biggest obstacle to getting through it, however, was not one’s blindness but non-stop deafening audio recording of me singing the entire rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar acapella from memory. My recording is an inspired tuneless rendition sung in full bravado.
I had first seen the play when I was ten years old. After that, I played the two-disc album over and over again until I knew it all by heart. There was something poignant and stirring about this biblical story that it provoked a young Jewish girl to assume the role of Our Savior. I sang it loudly every day behind my bedroom door waiting for that special moment when I could reveal my true talents. I finally got my chance at the Carnival where I released a cassette of my performance that you could play any time the Spirit moves you.
Ten years later, I was folding laundry at home when I got a phone call from WFMU live on the air. Kenny Goldsmith, DJ extraordinaire, said that I had many fans from my performance and would I come to the station the next day to sing it live. So I did. The following year I sang Carol King’s Tapestry, the essential 1970s growing-up album, and the next year I performed a stirringly off-key rendition of Patti Smith’s Horses—an essential album for all music lovers. This side-gig generated a fan base unparalleled to anything I encountered in the art world. I’ve met so many people who’ve asked if I am the Robin Kahn, singer of JC Superstar? Have had a friend say they heard a neighbor playing it in their home. I will be forever grateful to Kenny’s friendship and fandom.
JG: I want to know more about the very beginnings of the project you did for documenta, the moveable feast that involved the Sahrawi women living in refugee camps in Western Sahara. I’m hooked on the primacy of cooking in this project. Tell me about its roots, what led you there, your previous work that brought you to it, and your early collaborations and discussions with artists who may have been influential. I think of Alison Knowles and salad. I also think of Rirkrit Tiravanija.
RK: In 2009 I participated in ARTifariti, an arts festival founded by artists from Western Sahara, Algeria and Spain that takes place in Sahrawi refugee camps located outside Tindouf in Algeria’s Saharan desert. I lived there for six weeks, cooking with the women and sharing meals with families in five different camps. During my stay, I put together the maquette for the book Dining in Refugee Camps: The Art of Sahrawi Cooking, a publication that combines recipes for meals prepared and shared by the women in the camps, their personal stories about surviving occupation and life in exile with images and photos of Sahrawi daily life. When I returned to New York, the anarchist publishing cooperative Autonomedia offered to publish the book in an anti-copyright format in an effort to circulate recipes hand in hand with the recent history of Western Sahara that the women had shared while dining.
As a result, the book ended up in the hands of one of the cooperative members, the radical scholar and writer Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey. He was advising curators of dOCUMENTA (13) and thought my project should somehow be included. He gave me a phone call and left a message saying he had a dream of Sahrawi women cooking couscous in Germany. We talked, I got a formal invitation and went back to the refugee camps. I worked with the Sahrawi Women’s cooperative to design an interactive installation titled The Art of Sahrawi Cooking.
We began work with a group of women who make traditional Bedouin tents for families as needed. These tents, or jaimas, are the center of Sahrawi family and social life and would be the focal point of the exhibition. Once complete, we shipped the tent from the sands of the Sahara to the soil of the Karlsraue Park in Kassel. It was met by me and ten Sahrawi women who travelled to Germany from the refugee camps to bring awareness about their culture and educate viewers about their plight. With its brightly patterned interior of cushions, pillows, and rugs, and the sweet aroma of mint tea and incense and traditional music, the tent beaconed to visitors from across the exhibition grounds. As each person arrived, he/she received a bowl of couscous and was invited to sit down, eat and exchange conversations with the Sahrawi women. By constructing a home-in-exile for documenta just as they do in the refugee camps, the women created a place of comfort and safety imbued with all of the beauty (color, food, music, conversation, song & dance) that saturates Sahrawi daily existence. Everyone was welcomed as an invited guest. This hospitality enacted an environment of exchange that testifies to art’s power to promote commonality and understanding across cultures.
Again in October 2013, I participated in MAP2013, an arts festival in Texas’s Greater Dallas and Fort Worth area that produces art projects that advance ideas for positive social change. This time with a group of young Sahrawi women who were studying in American universities, we set up outside of the Dallas Museum of Art and organized an interactive environment in the spirit of the documenta project. As in Western Sahara, Texas is a state with its own history of colonization that became a starting point of commonality to engage conversation over shared meals. It was at this event that I first worked with my now adopted Sahrawi daughter Sara whose story you are publishing…
JG: How has the year of the pandemic and lockdown shaped your work? You left the city and moved to the country. Bye-bye New York. What’s it like, and how’s it been? How is it making art every goddamn day? Tell me about the most recent collages!
RK: My timing in leaving NYC set me up perfectly for the strange circumstances of Covid. I moved Upstate permanently three years ago while my daughter attended her first semester in college nearby. I set up a permanent studio, unpacked my boxes and got to work. This has been the first time in more than thirty years that I have the time and circumstance to devote every day to the work of making art.
About twenty minutes from my place in the Catskills is the town of Hobart. It has seven antiquarian bookstores where you can sit and browse for hours and leave with a handful of books. So since I’ve been here, I have been adding extensively my inspirational library of source materials. These encyclopedic “How To” instruction manuals, whether tackling the unsavory subject of winning the war over the barbarians or over the plague of acne, are designed to exude a direct and authoritarian tone. By making slight changes to their covers and title pages I have been exploring ways of subverting the tone to include the voices, images and thoughts of those oppressed by the dominant view. The results are familiar but strange vignettes that range from humorous exposés to sad truths about the state of civilized society today. They are a lot of fun to make. Soon I will have created an alternative universe of mind-bending titles and subversive subjects in my very own homespun library.
Robin Kahn is a feminist artist, an author of self-published books, an editor of anthologies, a curator and a founding member of several public art collectives. Intertwined with a 30-year practice of painting and object-making is the artist’s ongoing development of inventive collaborative projects that stimulate and engage public participation.
Joy Garnett is an artist and writer from New York. She lives in Los Angeles where she’s writing a family memoir of Egypt. She is the art editor of Evergreen.